Birgitta Jónsdóttir Interview
Birgitta Jónsdóttir describes herself as an activist ‘inside & outside the system.’ A poet, writer, artist, editor, publisher, she is also a member of the Icelandic Parliament since 2009, representing Reykjavík South Constituency district for the Citizens’ Movement party.
Birgitta presides over the International Modern Media Institute. She is on the Bradley Manning advisory board and she was the chief sponsor for the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI).
Birgitta was a volunteer for Wikileaks and helped release of the Collateral Murder video. In response to this release, United States Department of Justice subpoenaed Twitter, demanding all of Birgitta’s tweets from November 1st, 2009, through the present.
Information requested by the DoJ was extensive. According to Birgitta, DoJ asked for all mailing addresses and billing information, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts including banking records and credit cards.
Investigative reporter Nicholas Goroff had a chance to interview Ms. Jónsdóttir for the Progressive Press. He asked Birgitta about her involvement with Wikileaks, her work as a freedom of media and internet activist and her legal challenges with USA government, including an FBI investigation and the lawsuit involving NDAA.
Nicholas: Can you describe for us your involvement with WikiLeaks thus far, and with Private Bradley Manning?
Jónsdóttir: In December 2009, I was invited to speak at the Digital Freedom Society conference in Iceland where Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt from WikiLeaks were also speaking. Their speech evolved around an idea of making Iceland into a Switzerland of Bits, an idea John Perry Barlow had introduced a year earlier at the same conference. They managed to frame the idea based on the reality they had been facing with WikiLeaks and thus it sounded like a workable plan. WikiLeaks had managed to keep the content online no matter what and fight off some of the most powerful corporations and church of Scientology. My interest had been turn on and after a meeting in the evening at a grassroots house, where the people from WikiLeaks explained in more detail about what the organizations was about and the vision of the Switzerland of Bits, I approached Julian and said: “Lets do this.”
So, we gathered a group of experts in law, journalists and whistleblowers and our task was to look how different laws could improve the legislative reality of freedom of information, expression and speech in Iceland. We cherry picked the best functioning laws in this field from all over the world in order to bring laws in this field up to date to the 21st century in Iceland. The vision of the transparency have taken place in a shape of a parliamentary proposal where I was the chief sponsor but I managed to get important people from all parties to co-sponsor it with me.
The proposal has become known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). It tasked the Icelandic government to improve or write from scratch 10 different laws in 4 different ministries. To my great surprise, entire parliament voted for it in June 2010. IMMI has been an inspiration for other countries and the EU to set new standards in order to modernize their laws according to this century that we live in. This is how I started to work with WikiLeaks in 2009. Late in December, Julian and Daniel did a keynote at the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin and when they spoke about the IMMI idea they got a standing ovation, and from then on we knew that the time was right, because the world needed it and craved for a new hope.
In February 2010, Julian showed me the video that later became known as “Collateral Murder” at a cafe next to the parliament. He needed help with all the work that needed to be done in order to release it for the world to see. I was deeply moved when I saw the video. I was one of those millions of people all over the world that did everything in my power to stop the Iraq war from happening in the first place. I felt a moral duty to do everything in my power again to show people the true horror of war waged in the name of so many nations, including Iceland, for our name was on the list of the coalition of the willing. I hoped by releasing the video we could lend a voice to the voiceless people in Iraq who have lived through so much hardship because of a war they never called for. So being a typical activist, I just did everything that needed to be done in order to help WikiLeaks release it, being a Jack of all trades, there were few roles I didn’t take on, in order to meet the deadline on April 5th 2010.
Shortly after the release of the video, I went to the United States to participate in a panel about freedom of information, discussing IMMI at Berkley University. Julian was also there speaking about WikiLeaks. Julian stayed in USA and went from there to Australia in May. Around the time he was there we found out that somebody had been arrested in relation to the leaks. That somebody was Bradley Manning. I, of course, had never heard of this guy, so it was a shock hearing that somebody that was associated with this stuff was now in a prison in Kuwait and was around the same age as my oldest child. I had heard that the reality in prisons in that part of the world, especially military prisons is very harsh, and torture is quite common. I was sick with fear for this young man’s well-being and felt relieved that he would be brought to the USA. I didn’t know he would face torture there. I felt somehow connected to this person sitting in prison for something I helped bring out to the world to see.
I can’t verify it, to this day, I don’t know if that was the guy who leaked it, for WikiLeaks has a system where it is impossible for even the top dogs in the org to know who leaks stuff, but one thing is clear: Manning has been in prison on the 23rd of February for 1000 days and nights. The official trial date is set in June. I hope to be able to raise awareness about his case and I hope the MSM will stop ignoring this important case. It is important for so many different reasons. It is obvious that the government wants to use Manning as an example for what will happen to you, if you blow the whistle on war-crimes. Here is what Glenn Greenwald reported in Salon March 2012 about the what Manning has been going through:
“In December, 2010, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture announced a formal investigation into the conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention that endured for the eight months he was held at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia. The Army Private has been detained since May, 2010, on charges that he leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks, but has not yet been tried. Yesterday, the U.N. official overseeing the investigation pronounced that “Bradley Manning was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the excessive and prolonged isolation” to which he was subjected at Quantico. That official, Juan Ernesto Mendez, heads the U.N. office created by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, bestowed with the mandate “to examine questions relevant to torture.””
Nicholas: Do you think Manning will get a fair trial?
Jónsdóttir: President Barack Obama made stunning accusations about Bradley Manning, directly asserting that Manning “broke the law.” Apparently the President of the United States of America and a self-described Constitutional scholar does not care that Manning has yet to be tried or convicted for any crime. In a discussion April 21st 2011 with Logan Price, a Bradley Manning supporter who was part of a group of activists who sang a song during the President’s San Francisco fundraiser, President Obama flatly stated that Bradley Manning “dumped” documents and that “he broke the law.” A rough transcript follows, provided by UK Friends of Bradley Manning:
OBAMA: So people can have philosophical views [about Bradley Manning] but I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source [basis]… That’s not how the world works. And if you’re in the military… And I have to abide by certain rules of classified information. If I were to release material I weren’t allowed to, I’d be breaking the law. We’re a nation of laws! We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.
[Q: Didn’t he release evidence of war crimes?]
OBAMA: What he did was he dumped…
[Q: Isn’t that just the same thing as what Daniel Ellsberg did?]
OBAMA: No it wasn’t the same thing. Ellsberg’s material wasn’t classified in the same way.
This for me is a powerful confirmation that Manning will not get a fair trial.
Nicholas: Are you worried if you go to the USA that you will be detained?
Jónsdóttir: I take full responsibility for volunteering for WikiLeks in 2010. I did not feel I was doing anything wrong. There is nothing wrong with holding governments accountable. Blowing the whistle on war-crimes is not a crime. What is very important is the way you do it. WikiLeaks acted like any journalist organization, the virtual drop box for the brown envelope with documents. Main task was to verify if the documents dropped were indeed real or fake. Then the next task was to release the documents. WikiLeaks’ structure was to never know who delivered the documents. I have heard from very reliable sources at US governmental level that nobody has been put in harm’s way because of the leaks. I heard that it was possible to directly alert everyone that was a cohort, so there is no blood on the hands of WikiLeaks.
I have also heard that no one has been held accountable for the war crimes exposed and that I find to be unacceptable. To frame WikiLeaks as some sort of terrorist organization or enemy of the state is a dangerous path that will make it impossible for news outlets to report to the general public about what the state is doing. I don’t think that is a path neither the USA or other states that claim to be democracies want to go down. So no, I don’t fear going to the US. But there are rumors and there are some secret documents floating around that make many people think I am guilty of something. If that is the case I honestly want to find out instead of allowing this rumor to carry on snowballing.
Nicholas: Regarding the issues surrounding your privacy and the FBI efforts to investigate Icelanders associated with WikiLeaks in June through August 2011, the reports say that the FBI was turned away. Were you or any of the Icelandic Government made aware of the FBI’s intentions to conduct an investigation prior to their arrival?
Jónsdóttir: I had no idea, just heard it in the news a couple of weeks ago. The Minister of Internal affairs knew but realized that they were here under a false flag, for the FBI originally came to Iceland according to legal help request to help Iceland prevent a cyber attack on our governmental infrastructure, that LulzSec was supposed to be organizing. That entire operation might have been some sort of sting operation, for at the same time Sabu LulzSec had been turned into a FBI mole and he and a WikiLeaks volunteer, who were supposed to be the people organizing this attack where both playing roles that didn’t exists. Perhaps the FBI first believed that Siggi was a reliable source, I hope they understand by now that he is everything but.
Anyway the FBI first contacted and requested for legal permissions to stop the “attack” but carried on their investigations despite it had changed. They did not notify about the change and this is why they were asked to leave or come back with proper request. The probes into my private life is a different case and perhaps more serous and I frankly don’t think people understand how serious that probe was/is; for people were upset that the FBI came here physically. While indeed they had been given permission to enter into my home, not through the offline world door but my online door. Lets not forget where almost everyone, knowingly or not, keeps their private stuff?
Jónsdóttir: Exactly, if the FBI would come into my physical home and search through all my private stuff they would probably find a lot less private stuff in my home than online. So, I made this metaphor, that the FBI came to my home and they went through all my private letters, all my papers. They went through who I’ve been with and when and at what location. And that is exactly what happened. So the conclusion is this: FBI can enter into anybody’s home without their knowledge, look through everything and analyze associations and connections much quicker online. They can do this to anyone, anywhere in the world, and no one seems to understand the gravity of it. If they had knocked down my offline world door – it would have been a major international incident. For let us not forget that I have been told by the DoJ that I am not under criminal investigation.
When I found out that the DoJ wanted to enter into my private messages and get legal access to all my back end info like IP numbers early 2011. I had no choice but to take it to Court, it was not so much to protect me, because I know that they already got a lot of stuff from me through other social media companies. The reason I did it was, I was hoping it would raise awareness about everybody else’s legal situation in relation to their online privacy. Let us not forget just about anybody could be associated with vague terms of terrorism. Many active organizations have been under serious attacks and even termed as terrorists, for example The Occupy Movement has been under very serious privacy attacks, both online and offline. Journalists, activists, even peace groups that have existed for a long time, have been harassed tremendously under the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, mainstream media has completely failed in reporting the seriousness of this development.
I and the rest of the online community have learned a lot about how much work is still to be done to protect us. For example, we learned in the first Court ruling, when I first lost in Court, something of incredible importance, the judge actually ruled that no individuals have the right to know if the government is prying into their stuff. We have to rely on the social media companies to look after our backs. Now even if some of them have a history of doing this, I don’t believe for a second that they can do this. The only reason I knew about the DoJ probing into my stuff, was because Twitter took the secret document from DoJ to court in order to unseal it, so that I could be notified. If they had lost, I would never have known about this, nor you or anyone else. Twitter have looked after their users’ backs, but I have no idea how many times they have lost nor do I know how the other social media companies fare in this regard. I do however know that 4 other companies have handed over my stuff, but I do not have permission to know who they are by a court ruling, because of investigative purposes request from the DoJ to keep it under seal.
I was very fortunate that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU helped me and offered legal council pro bono, because this case was considered as exemplary case for the future. This is why it is so sad that we lost. The good news is that EFF got inspired to set up a project that I urge everyone to follow called: When the government comes knocking, who has your back? https://www.eff.org/pages/who-has-your-back.
The campaign rates different social media companies in relation to how they look after our backs. This is an important first step but I think we need to go much, much further in order to have our online human rights honored. The Patriot Act has pushed the USA to the same level as China and Iran in regard to surveillance of their citizens and violations and invasion of privacy. Perhaps the time has come for the online giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Skype and Twitter to form a coalition and push for legislative change for the online users that have to relay on them for protection. If the legislative body won’t, it is time to pull the plug and leave the USA or the users will leave them.
Nicholas: What evidence did you find that the FBI was digitally tracking you and gathering your personal information without your knowledge?
Jónsdóttir: In January 2011, I received an email message from Twitter that the U.S. government had them hand over all my personal stuff to them, my private messages, so forth, without my knowledge, within 3 days. And Twitter took it to Court. They directed me to the ACLU and the EFF. Both organizations decided to represent me pro-bono because this was a groundbreaking case for others. We lost the case, but my lawyers discovered that there were 4 other companies that handed over my stuff, but the judges did not allow us to know who they are.
But I will be in the U.S.A. in April to challenge it. I refuse to live in fear. I know in my heart I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve just done stuff that any journalist would do. I used to work as a journalist myself.
Nicholas: You have made a name for yourself as a fierce advocate for individual privacy, especially online privacy. Can you tell us what are the Icelandic laws regarding privacy, and how do they conflict with international or US laws?
Jónsdóttir: Laws in Iceland are not up-to-date when it comes to privacy. We have however managed to put the EU data retention law on ice, but I don’t know for how long we can get away with it. I’ve been primarily focusing on the laws within the IMMI proposal, they evolve around freedom of Information, expression and speech; whistle-blower act, source protection, liable laws and prior restraint to name a few. The initial goal was to make websites like WikiLeaks redundant.
My next big project that I really want people to get engaged with, apart from my Bradley Manning project, is to find solutions in relation to the lack of privacy laws dealing with increasing surveillance technology and data mining. Governments and corporations are yet again in perfect marriage when it comes to violating the sacredness of the right to privacy. Because of the trend of data mining by the USA government, lobbyists and politicians in Europe have started to look into a great wall around Europe to protect its citizens from NSA. I don’t want us creating a Great Wall of China around countries or continents on the internet; that would destroy what the internet is all about.
We need to figure out ways, collectively, across continents how to solve this issue together, because I can’t do it alone. I don’t have the knowledge; I don’t understand the loopholes, or the legal framework. It should be illegal for governments to go into people’s private data without their knowledge unless there is a court order. The barrier, to do so, will be lowered to such a degree that many people will find it to be normal to be constantly monitored by the state. That is not normal. Having to encrypt all communications is not normal, but for now our only protection. People need to understand with the current legal framework and technological capacity, everything we communicate or do online or on our phones is like sending a live stream from our lives for everyone to see. We are all stars in the Truman show.
Nicholas: Why did you choose to enter the system and become a politician?
Jónsdóttir: During times of crisis we have the best shot at profound change in our societies. I have been an activists outside the system trying to figure out how to get the issues I hold dear on the table of those in power. It is a very time consuming and difficult path to take. So I entered into the system, looked at it through the eyes of the hacker, analyzed it and tried to understand it, looked for errors and loopholes that human beings fall through, tried to find ways to fix errors or bring attention to what needs to be amended.
My main task was to make sure that a bridge between the public and the (re)public was built, so that we can get a true representation of everyone inside the house of representatives. To create tools so that the public could be more engaged, so that they can call for changes without revolting, so that we could have a new constitution, written for and by the Icelandic nation and to experiment with horizontal structure within the pyramid of power. I am a pragmatic anarchist, I truly believe we need to care more for our democracies, for if we don’t, we end up with the mess we got to day. If people want their power back, I want to make sure that they have the laws in place in order to be able to do that.
Nicholas: In the USA, for example, there is increased legislation making it ok for warrantless wiretaps and searches, but the majority of the debate here in the U.S. over individual rights primarily centers on gun ownership. Do you think distraction plays a big part?
Jónsdóttir: Absolutely. For example, why isn’t there a major debate in the media about the Court case that happened today about the addition to NDAA? This addition gives the military the power to arrest anybody, anywhere, on the suspicion of terrorism, and this also means U.S. Citizens. People can actually vanish forever, without having access to a lawyer or Court. Why isn’t there a big debate about that instead of gun ownership? It feels like something went terribly wrong in the USA, why is it that so many people feel that they have to own a gun to defend themselves against the State. I used to live in the U.S., and I am so horrified to see what is happening to it, it reminds me of Rome when the empire was crumbling. We have to find a common vision on what sort of world we want to live in and we have to be quick. We can’t focus on the things that separate us, we have to focus on the things that we have in common.
Nicholas: Do you feel as if we are reaching a catalyst moment?
Jónsdóttir: T.S Eliot says in the poem The Wasteland “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” I fear that most people are waiting for a clear catastrophic sign that we are running out of planet. A sudden peak in oil price, earthquakes ripping the world apart, before they wake up and start to change their ways. But the fact of the matter is that we are running out of planet. And our sleepwalking in our consumerism and apathy is making the future for our children very bleak. We have already lost so much that can never be restored. One of the reasons we are in this mess is because we are fed brain-junk through TV and other media, games and now on the Internet. It is hard to come across facts and in-depth analyzing of the situations. In a sense we are much more like the society written about in the book by Huxley: Brave New World, then Orwell: 1984. I still hold on to the hope, we can wake up in time. But I have to admit that I think the bleakness of the Endgame by Derrick Jenssen will be upon us if each and everyone of us don’t act fast.
We are heading into transforming our democracies from being high jacked by a very select few, pretending to represent the 99%, while they only know the reality of the 1%.
Nicholas: Thank you so much taking the time to give us this interview.